Sunday, October 18, 2009

It's All in the Details: Buttering My Bread

by Zinta Aistars

Wise Woman Pam, someone who offered me guidance over rocky paths years ago, said something to me once that I find is with me still, many years later. “You can know a person by how they butter their bread.” I don’t know if this originated with Pam, but she is the one who gifted me this wisdom.

This morning, I had occasion to ponder this. I have also heard it said, after all, that the human being can survive great tragedy—witness the survivors of the Holocaust, or the Bolshevik revolution, or the raped and ravaged women of the Congo—but it is the details that break us. That proverbial straw on the camel’s strong back. Marriages can survive affairs, many have, but how many divorces are caused by a mate leaving the cap off the toothpaste just one time too many? Chinese water torture: drip, drip, drip, a ceaseless dripping, death by a thousand pin pricks, insanity caused by one single, final, drop of cool water.

We are broken not by one great crisis, but by many “trivial” incidents of disrespect. It is the accumulation of tiny, delicate snowflakes that finally cause the avalanche.

How many times have I seen one of my father’s paintings suddenly come to life when he dabs just the very tip of the tiniest brush to the canvas on his easel, leaving a miniscule white dot in the pupil of his subject’s eye?

Oh, the metaphors and the examples are infinite.

I imagine this buttering of a slice of bread. I recall the memory of Wise Woman Pam telling me this story, how she spoke of a woman she admired, who taught her this wisdom that she now passed on to me, and how this woman approached the entirety of her life—in all its meticulous detail—with appreciation and joy. She was a woman who enjoyed washing dishes by hand, because she found it to be a time of meditation. To stand at the sink, warm and soapy water running over her hands, sponging clean plate after plate, glass after cup, fork and spoon, and restoring order to her life. A meal had been prepared, loved ones had been nourished, the dishes were now put away in waiting for another meal.

When she buttered her bread, she did it with full awareness. She did not allow herself to be distracted in that moment by anything else. She buttered the bread with a layer of golden and creamy butter, then sat down to eat it.

“You don’t have to know how a person does big projects to know him or her,” Pam said. “You just need to observe how a person handles the details of life.”

Kind and charming and pleasant in a crowd… but rude and coarse and arrogant at home. Observe the man who drops a coin in the homeless woman’s cup, but he kicks the cat when he opens his own door. His presentation to the board is written beautifully, but he neglects the thank you note to his neighbor for a gift of time.

We all take great care in how we present ourselves to the world at large, but we show our true faces when we think what we are doing is too small to notice. Our true selves come out in the details. In the little things. We squeeze a friend’s hand when she is having a bad day. We smile when someone smiles at us. We smile even when they don’t. We let the car in a hurry cut in front of us on the highway without leaning on the horn. We nod thanks when someone else allows us to do it. We put the cap back on the toothpaste even when we can’t figure out why that is so dang important—we just remember that to our mate, it is.

I think about the frequent, long and involved discussions I have with my co-editors at the office. The four of us can “twirl,” as we call it, about the placement of a comma literally for hours. We debate the construction of a sentence until every word in it has been turned every which way but loose. When that much discussed and dissected sentence later appears in print, perfect, we all grin when someone says—you make it look so simple (well, okay, now and then, one or two of us snarls at such praise). I realize these are some of my favorite times at work. I have great respect for the quality writers and editors in my office. We each have a different skill set we bring to our team, different training and work experience. All of us have valid perspectives on just where that comma should land, or if it should land at all. It is in our grammatical “twirling” that we show who we are: professionals in written communication who have a deep love of language and a respect for clarity. It is our concern over the finest details that makes of us artists and not merely craftsmen and women.

It’s all the minutiae of life. We know we are loved not by the grand bouquet of flowers on Valentine’s Day, but by the single daisy our mate stopped to pluck in a field of daisies on the way home from work. Just because.

I butter my bread slowly this Sunday morning, breathe deeply, and remember this wisdom: how I do the small things tells the truth about who I am. I lick the knife. What that tells you about me: I don't mind taking the occasional risk, I believe life should be rich with flavor, my cholesterol numbers are healthy, I'll ignore good manners now and then—and I love butter.

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